Powerless Pedagogy: Teachers Know What Works So Why Won’t Policy Makers Listen to Them?
By Carole Marshall
(This narrative is part of the ongoing series co-sponsored by United Opt Out called Tales from The Opt Out Trenches, which invites parents, students, and teachers to share their “on the ground” real life experiences fighting corporate-led education reform and offer ways for how we might fight back and create a vision for public education worthy of all our children. Submissions may be submitted by anyone, and their is no deadline. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org )
I started teaching in an urban high school in Providence, Rhode Island in 1995, moving to teaching from a career that encompassed two published books, business writing for newspapers here and abroad, and university teaching. At the university, I taught an introduction to journalism and discovered students from inner city high schools who had much to say but few skills with which to say it. I decided I wanted to teach kids like them and went back to school for training and certification in secondary English. Making a long story short, I got a job at a large comprehensive high school with a terrible reputation; it was Hope High School, but people tended to call it Hopeless.
The school was in constant upheaval: student walk-outs, faculty feuds, fires set by students that damaged the auditorium, flooding in the library, no curriculum whatsoever, and my only direction from the principal to keep all of my students in the classroom all of the time no matter what. It was scary at first and then I learned to close my classroom doors and concentrate on improving the atmosphere and education there. It was lonely work.
In 1997, under a new, young principal, I became involved in an effort to radically change the school. The state, city and union were in something of an agreement to support the faculty of my high school in rethinking and restructuring education in the school. Four years later, after hundreds of hours of voluntary, non-paid work by the faculty, we opened with four small learning communities and a completely new schedule which ensured more English and math for all students and especially the at-risk ninth and tenth graders, as well as common planning time for teaching teams.
For the next eight years, the school lurched toward a roughly stable situation of three small learning communities, all the time trying to avoid the upheavals that resulted from state, city, and union politics. It was by no means a smooth road, nor was it a panacea. The teachers had signed commitment letters agreeing to work longer hours and to doing more if we could be allowed to follow the plan we had created. Many, perhaps half the faculty decided to leave, but the people who stayed were passionate.
Because of our hard work and an agreement by the union to permit an open hiring process, we were able to select excellent new teachers with lots of energy. Because of the smaller populations in each community, the teachers and students became close and more students could see that their teachers cared about them. Because of common planning time, we could standardize academic and behavioral standards across the communities. By 2008 and 2009, the majority of our students in two of the three small learning communities were performing at “proficient” or better on the standardized tests of that year in reading. Writing scores had doubled. Both teachers and students were immensely proud to be there and to have done that.
Ironically, that same year, it all began to crumble. The faculty of all three communities was called to an after-school meeting in the auditorium. The principals of the three small learning communities sat above us on the proscenium stage and delivered the news: the school was changing again, being reformulated from three communities to two. There was nothing we could do about it, the decision had been made. Teachers hadn’t been included in the process. A few of us raised our voices, but the principals maintained that the orders were coming from above and they were helpless to resist.
That was the first step toward the death of our dream. We were ordered to dismantle one of our communities and distribute all those unhappy students who had suddenly lost their identities between the two other communities. Then in 2011, we were ordered to eliminate team planning times. In 2012, with the elimination of the remaining communities, the school reverted to its old anonymity. In those three short years, standardized testing results plummeted. And that was ironic, because by 2012 there seemed to be only one way to judge a teacher’s success: the measure was how many of her students jumped through the hoops of standardized testing.
There was no longer any interest in teachers working together to improve their schools; absolutely everything was dictated from the top down. Teachers were given a curriculum and a textbook. They were told which selections in the textbook they should use and which page of the curriculum they should be on each day. They were told how to set up their blackboards and what to put on their walls. People they didn’t know often walked into their classrooms and spent five minutes tapping codes into an iPad about whether the teacher was in compliance.
In my school, the English teachers in particular were given a long list of other responsibilities – in addition to calling scores of parents every month, they administered standardized tests four or more times per year, with testing usually lasting three days to a week; created data analyses from the results; filled out hundreds of pages tracking students’ literacy; and filled out hundreds more pages on student failure rates and what they were doing about it. Teaching became overwhelmed by red tape. All of this paperwork had to show that students were improving in so-called literacy and passing classes; if it didn’t, the teacher was in the hot seat.
Teachers were learning. They were learning to set very low expectations so they could be sure students could reach them and to give students passing grades whether or not they deserved them. Why would a teacher bother teaching students how to write and then spend hours at home reading all their papers if clearly what was being demanded was paperwork of a completely different sort? It had become impossible to do the things with students that I believe teachers need to be able to do. What was going on in the classrooms could no longer be called teaching. When I realized that, it was a sad day. Feeling I had no other alternative, I left teaching.